Bujumbura — The first group of ethnic Tutsi refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who survived the 2004 massacre in the transit border camp of Gatumba, have left Bujumbura, capital of Burundi, to resettle in the US.
Thirty-five refugees boarded the plane for the US on Sunday, with 35 more scheduled to leave on Monday and another group on Wednesday, according to Catherine Lune-Grayson, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A total of 550 people have been cleared for resettlement in the US.
Innocent Birume is waiting to travel to the US with his wife, eight children and an orphan he is taking care of. He welcomed the move, saying it was an appropriate solution to the numerous problems the refugees had encountered since the tragedy.
"We have waited for two years without getting any aid. There are orphans, people who suffered many injuries. They will now get adequate assistance," he said. Some of his children have not been able to go to school for lack of money, he said, adding that he was happy they would be helped in the US.
He expressed hope that all the survivors would benefit from resettlement, saying that 129 families had been identified for relocation at the beginning of the process, but some had been declared ineligible.
About 20,000 Congolese refugees had fled fighting in South Kivu province in eastern DRC in 2004 and found refuge in Burundi. Some were hosted at Gatumba, where an armed group attacked them, killing 156 people, mostly women and children, and wounding hundreds.
A Burundi rebel group, the Forces nationales de liberation (FNL), claimed responsibility for the massacre.
The resettlement initiative came from Congolese living in the US. The UNHCR worked with the International Organisation for Migration to prepare the refugees for resettlement.
Lune-Grayson said UNHCR carried out a long screening process with in-depth interviews to ensure the right people would be resettled. "The only criterion was to be a survivor of the massacre," she said.
"We considered that the return to DRC was unlikely and local integration in Burundi was difficult because the massacre occurred in Burundi. Resettlement was the only possible solution," said Lune-Grayson.
In a statement on Sunday, the UNHCR representative in Burundi, Kaba Guichard Neyaga, also said resettlement was the only viable option for the refugees.
"Apart from getting access to the specialised healthcare they need, the resettlement will guarantee them better chances in life," he said.
The Congolese will settle in various US towns, including Denver, Colorado; Louisville, Kentucky; and Austin, Texas. On arrival, charity organisations will help the refugees to resettle and integrate in the US.
After the massacre, some refugees were resettled at Gihinga in Burundi's central province of Mwaro, and Gasorwe in the northeastern province of Muyinga, but most elected to stay in Bujumbura.
Lune-Grayson said survivors preferred the capital city because of better access to healthcare and to avoid harsh conditions in camps.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]